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Bloomberg says lower grad rate reflects improved performance

For Mayor Bloomberg, putting a positive spin on the city’s latest high school graduation numbers required him to get creative with his number-crunching.

The city’s four-year graduation rate fell by half a point, to 60.4 percent, making Bloomberg’s final press conference about the data the first to contend with a sharp decline.

During a press conference at City Hall this afternoon, Bloomberg said the fact that the city’s graduation rate did not fall more because of the state’s tougher graduation requirements was reason for celebration. Last year was the first time that students had to pass five Regents exams with a grade or 65 or higher, as opposed to 55.

“Everybody predicted that our graduation rates would fall precipitously and that did not happen,” Bloomberg said. “This is showing improvement, not decline.”

In a PowerPoint presentation, Bloomberg highlighted how far the city’s graduation rate would have climbed had the standards in place last year also been in place earlier in his term. City officials pointed out that if the state had not raised its graduation standards, the city’s rate would have climbed by 1.4 points instead of falling.

And Bloomberg said he could have raised graduation rates even more had his policy proposals never been stymied by the United Federation of Teachers, spurring a fresh round of mutual criticism.

“Just think as far as we’ve come, just think how much more progress we’d be able to make if these reforms that we had proposed hadn’t been opposed at every turn by union leadership,” Bloomberg said.

He noted that graduation rates are higher in new small schools than they had been in the large schools they replaced under a school closure policy that the union has sued repeatedly to stop.

Bloomberg, who has sparred with the union fiercely in recent years, made his comments at a politically heated moment of the mayoral race. The UFT is set to endorse a candidate on Wednesday for the first time since 2001.

“The last time the UFT’s endorsement got somebody elected, it was better than two decades ago,” Bloomberg said, referring to David Dinkins in 1989. “It’s almost the kiss of death.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in response, “Dozens of candidates in local and citywide elections have won with UFT backing in recent years, and many are seeking it this year, while running away from Bloomberg and his record. Right now most candidates would rather be the victim of zombie attack than get a Michael Bloomberg endorsement.”

Both Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, seen as the top two contenders for the UFT endorsement, issued statements critical of the graduation rate gains under Bloomberg.

Mulgrew also took on Bloomberg’s characterization of the city’s graduation rates. “We’ve had a decade of no real curriculum, repeated reorganizations, relentless test prep and a lack of support for struggling schools,” he said. “The result is that black and Hispanic students are graduating at a far lower rate than whites and Asians, and a college readiness gap — 11.7 percent vs. 46.8 percent — that is completely unacceptable.”

Unlike most other large districts that posted graduation rate declines, New York City did show an increase in students’ college readiness, according to state standards. More students also graduated prepared for college according to the city’s own measurement of readiness, which reflects City University of New York remediation and entrance standards and third-party tests such as the SAT.

But while the graduation rate gap separating black and Hispanic students from white students narrowed slightly, white students still achieved the state’s college-readiness metric more than three and a half times as often as black and Hispanic students. And citywide, just 22 percent of students who entered high school in 2008 graduated ready for college last year.

Bloomberg did acknowledge that the largest decline in student subgroups was for English Language Leaners, which went from from 39.4 percent to 35.4 percent. Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department would give more training and resources to schools with large ELL populations and make $2 million in new grants available for extended day programs, online courses, and additional instructional materials.

“More students are graduating ready for college and 21st-century careers, but we know that we have more work to do,” Walcott said.

Bloomberg closed the conference by saying the next administration has to continue the work he has done while in office.

“We would just become the laughingstock of the country if you were to roll back everything that has worked so well,” he said.